Before she was Executive Assistant to Provost Joyce Jacobsen and the academic deans, Megan Flagg was making dead bodies. That is, before she started working in higher education, Flagg worked in the film industry, doing special effects and costuming.
“I worked on Iron Man, which sounds very exciting, but most of the time in the shop I was covered in fiberglass. I was mold making for the suit of Jeff Bridges’ character,” Flagg explained, her long, blue earrings swinging as she spoke.
Other notable films Flagg worked on include “Flags of Our Fathers,” “TRON: 2,” “No Country for Old Men,” and, she added with a laugh,“Avatar: the Last Airbender.”
“I got to work on some big name movies, but what you’re doing can feel like factory work instead of anything super creative or exciting,” she said.
Flagg grew up in Connecticut but moved to Los Angeles after she graduated from Boston College. She did years of office work out of college but then switched to making special effects. Despite the fun of the industry, Flagg said there were many drawbacks that compelled her to go back into office work.
“It’s a niche area of the film industry that doesn’t really have a union,” Flagg explained. “You can be in a union if you’re an on-set makeup artist or you can be in a union if you’re an on-set costumer, but the area of shop world where there is a shop that creates makeup appliances and dead bodies and all that type of stuff, there is no union for that. It’s very scattered with not a lot of organization.”
In addition to complications with unions and working as an independent contractor, Flagg found that the tremendous passion of the people in the industry didn’t necessarily make them the best in business.
“Sometimes they really struggle with owning a business and having employees and thinking about insurance, while also trying to put in a good budget that’s realistic and will get them hired,” Flagg said. “They fight with producers because the producers say they don’t want to pay that much, but for making a make-up appliance or a dead body or something, there are so many steps.
Increasing usage of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has taken away a lot of the opportunities within the special effects field, as having props handmade is typically much more expensive than having them coded. Props made with CGI are also easily adjustable, whereas having props physically built requires a lot of moving parts that make the final product difficult to change. And if a producer suddenly decided to cut a scene that uses one of the artist’s props, the artist would lose the work completely.
“You are an employee, but it’s a very individual contractor type of life where if you’re out sick, you don’t get paid, and if a producer suddenly decides they’re going to cut a scene and they don’t actually need that dead body, you’re out of work for a week,” Flagg said. “So there are some people who get regular jobs and get hired continually, but other people are out searching for work. I had one year where I worked for about half the year in special effects, and everyone was like, ‘That’s actually a really good year!’ which it probably was, but I realized as I got older that I wanted to do other things.”
So Flagg began again to look for office jobs, a field in which she already had experience. She applied to both University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Southern California (USC) and began work at USC. Five years ago, she decided to move back to Connecticut, working in the provost’s office.
As the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Jacobsen works directly under President Michael Roth to coordinate all parts of and people in Wesleyan academics, including the librarians, the registrar, and the athletic department heads. Her office focuses on hiring tenured, tenure-track, adjunct, and visiting faculty. With all of these responsibilities, Flagg typically organizes Jacobsen’s busy schedule, as well as the schedules of the two assistant provosts. When Flagg left the film industry and started looking for jobs, the community of academic work settings was a factor that enticed her.
“Higher education was appealing to me because I really didn’t want to go into the corporate world so much,” Flagg said. “I wasn’t interested in working on selling a product, I was interested in being around intelligent people, people who were there to focus on a cause more than something commercial oriented.”
While Flagg was a student at Boston College, she never thought much about the provost or the administration, so she said working on the other side of the college experience, specifically in Academic Affairs, has been eye-opening. Though she said she has not heard many perspectives of students on Wesleyan’s administrators, she expects there are some misconceptions in the student body, as well as in the faculty, about what different members of the administration actually do.
“I think in general North College is this mystery building with administrators and no one quite knows,” Flagg said. “Sometimes a faculty member will be called into a meeting with the provost, and they’re all nervous, thinking ‘Oh no, I’ve been called in,’ but we’re all just people, and sometimes people have questions or just want to check in. It’s not anything scary, we’re definitely all just people who are trying to help.”
Sara McCrea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.